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What Does John 3:16 Mean?

December 18, 2022


Pastor Peder Kling


Sermon Passage: John 3:14–21

Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)

The Most Popular Verse in Our Bibles

This morning, we’re looking at what many say is the most popular verse in our Bibles. This is John 3:16, folks—almost everyone has at least heard of it. It’s in our sports culture. It’s all over country music. It’s on billboards as you’re driving. It’s everywhere. Why is that? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”—why does that ring so loudly, to be so famous even in our post-Christian America? Is it simply the verse that passionate, evangelistic Christians plaster all over because it captures the gospel so concisely? I think there’s more to it than that.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a culture which heralds “love and acceptance” as the supreme virtue would cling so closely to a verse that says “God so loved the world that he gave his only son”. It has a nice, lovely ring to it, doesn’t it?

If you did a brief study on the history of John 3:16 in American culture, you might find that John 3:16 may have gained some popularity during the revivals of the first and second great awakenings—but we really see John 3:16 peaking its head publicly in the 1970s during the hippie movement and the closely associated Jesus movement.


Think about it—what did hippies love so much? They loved love. “All you need is love”, right? So here’s John 3:16 for you, “God loved the world so much—or, in this way—that he gave his only son”. That’s a shocking love—and, it’s extended to the world for peace, unity, love. In the ‘70s, you’d start finding hippies putting “John 3:16” all over the public square, holding up “John 3:16” signs at sports arenas and street corners. There was a famous figure who got this whole thing started especially in sports arenas. He was called the “rainbow man”—he dressed in hippie-like apparel, wore a rainbow afro wig, and held up “Jesus” signs and “John 3:16” signs. He himself had gloom-and-doom end times beliefs, thinking the end was coming very soon. Yet, while people rejected his crazy antics and end times conspiracies, the John 3:16 verse he used has stuck around. Since then, John 3:16 has been a regular Bible verse in the professional sports arena. Perhaps you have a vivid image of someone holding up “John 3:16” between the goal posts at football games. Or, you could think of Tim Tebow painting John 3:16 on his face, and others having it printed on their shoes.


It’s all over the place—and, we must be clear. Even though John 3:16 might be misunderstood and misused by many, we should be thankful it’s everywhere. John 3:16 is a glorious verse, even when it stands alone, and we’ll see that this morning. Yet, it can also be grossly misused, unto devastating consequences. There was one professional athlete who just before killing himself, painted “John 3:16” on his forehead. People debate why he did this—but, I have to think he was saying “don’t judge me. God loves me, he accepts me because he so loved the world”. We need to understand this verse, folks. Why did God send his son into the world, in this way?


So, let’s look directly at John 3:16 first. It has glorious things to tell us. Then, as we look at John 3:16 in context, we’ll see two reasons why we need John 3:16.


John 3:16 in All Its Glory

Look at John 3:16 with me. This verse really does deserve some time to think about. There’s no need to over-complicate this, folks. It is a glorious verse. It tells us why God sent his son into the world—why do we celebrate Christmas? What’s the reason for God-in-the-flesh? What does the verse say?


“God so loved the world that he gave his only son…”.


Did you hear the reason, folks? It’s all rooted in God’s love. That’s shocking—and, it’s shocking because this verse does tell us that we are under his judgment (even though many might fail to see this). “…he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him should not perish”. God loved us so that we would not perish—and, we aren’t talking about menial perishing, here, folks. We aren’t talking about perishing in sadness or exhaustion after a stressful day of work or with the kids at home. “Aw man, I’m really perishing this week—it’s really got a hold of me”. That’s not what we’re talking about. The Greek word behind “perish”, there, is the word that can also be translated as “destroyed”. We’re talking about God’s love saving us from destruction—Jesus uses the same word, there, to describe Judas in John 17. He says that he has not lost one of his disciples “except the son of destruction”—that is Judas, who betrayed Jesus and will suffer in hell for eternity for his crime.


Or, you could simply notice that “perishing”, there, is contrasted with “eternal life”. God loved us by sending his son, so that we would not perish, but have eternal life. It’s an either or, there in John 3:16. You’re either going to enjoy life with God eternally, or you won’t. You’ll either enjoy eternal life, or you’ll perish—and as we’ll see in a moment, you’ll perish under God’s wrath and judgment. This really is not a verse for the faint of heart.


I love what R.C. Sproul says about this—and, it jives well with what I said earlier, concerning the widespread misuse of this verse. Sproul says—


Not only is this undoubtedly the best-known verse in the New Testament, it’s probably the most distorted verse, as well. Why? It is because people who love the apparent universality of this verse hate the undeniable particularity of it.[1]


That’s absolutely right. There is a universality to this verse—God loved the whole world. It’s shocking, especially when you consider that we are talking about God loving his enemies who are perishing under his wrath. It’s a universal love—although, we can’t say that it’s a universal love “without exception”. There are exceptions to God’s love upon those in his world—and, we know this because of the limiting words in the middle of the verse. Who gets eternal life? “Whoever believes in him”. If you don’t believe, you’re still perishing. John goes on to say in our passage that you’re “condemned already”, or you’re in the “darkness” of sin and judgment. So, we might say that God’s love upon the world, here in John 3, isn’t a universal love without exception, but rather without distinction. Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, here. Nicodemus is a Jew, trained to think that God’s love is especially upon the Jews. Yet here, Jesus is saying that God no longer distinguishes Jew from gentile. He’s no longer loves only the Jews, to offer salvation only through the Jews. Before Jesus, you’d have to become a Jewish proselyte if you wanted to receive God’s love and salvation as a gentile. Yet now, in Jesus, God has opened salvation to the world. It’s no longer for Jews only, and it’s no longer mediated through the Jewish religion. It’s for the world, and it’s mediated through God’s only son, Jesus. That’s all there, in John 3:16. “God so loved the world [i.e., not just the Jews] that he gave his only son [i.e., not a Jewish sacrificial system and law], that whoever believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life”. This is expanding God’s economy of salvation—but, so many fail to see that John 3:16 is no doubt limiting his salvation only to those who believe, as it’s only offered through Jesus.


So, this isn’t teaching universalism—“God is love, and he universally loves, because God so loved the world, and you can get to God through any means you desire”. Mother Theresa taught that, you know. She’s on record for saying—


We never try to convert those whom we receive to Christianity but in our work we bear witness to the love of God’s presence and if Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, or agnostics become for this better men—simply better—we will be satisfied.


She also said,


Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.’


God is love, you know—"he so loved the world, that he gave his son, so that you could believe whatever you want, trust whomever you want, do whatever you think God wants you to do”. That’s how this verse is often misused in our culture today.


Sproul was right. John 3:16 is the most popular, and most misused verse of all times (again) “because people who love the apparent universality of this verse hate the undeniable particularity of it”. It’s amazing how people fail to see the consequences—the particularity—of John 3:16. The only way to God, and to his love, is through Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him”—that is, his son, not just, generically, “God” or “a god”. We read that “whoever believes in [his son] will not perish but have eternal life.” And, if you don’t believe in his son, you don’t get eternal life. You don’t get God’s love. You get his wrath, which you are already perishing under, and you will perish under it for eternity with unthinkable suffering.


Let the particularity—and the severity—of John 3:16 jar you with fear. Let it strike you with the question—“am I believing unto eternal life, or am I perishing”? It’s a wonder that our world chooses not to see this. It’s a wonder that it’s not blurred out on the television screen whenever it shows up on a sign between the football goal posts. It promotes the message which our world deems hateful, religious bigotry. “You’ll perish under God’s wrath if you don’t repent and believe”.


By the way—while many distort this verse with reference to God’s universal love, I fear that even the most mature Christians tend to distort this verse more simply with reference to God’s love (period). Christian—do you understand the love we’re talking about in this verse?


God so loved the world. What world—what people—are we talking about? That’s you and me, and if we understand who God is and how we’ve offended him, we might just begin to see how unimaginable this love is. God’s love is foremost and ltimately disposed toward himself, eternally, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are three persons, one God, perfectly enjoying fellowship and love together for all eternity. That’s where love comes from—and, God made us in his image. You and I bear God’s image. He made us to be an image—or a reflection—of his perfections and glory back to him. He made us to love like he loves; to experience joy like he experiences joy; to experience peace and holiness and patience and goodness as he does forever and always in eternity between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We didn’t get these capacities out of nowhere, folks. We were given them from God, and we were created to enjoy them and flourish in them with hearts of thanksgiving and praise to God who made us in such a marvelous image. We were given that name—“image bearers of God”—to enjoy those godly blessings, and so glorify God whose image we bear and benefit from. More than this—we’re lovable to God because God loves God, and God made us in his image. He looks at us, in his image, and he says “I love that”, because he loves himself and his image.


So here’s the question—how might God regard us if, say, we rebelled against that image and decided to go our own direction? The image is stamped on us, folks, and yet we despise it every time we stray from it in pursuit of ungodly passions and desires. God says “imitate me and image me, for I created you for this purpose”. Then we say, “nah God, I got this. I’m going to take the abilities and gifts gave me and go love things that you despise. I’m going to use my tongue to slander and gossip and complain, my hands to do harm, my mind to dream up lies and believe them”. It’s a crass, gross mockery of God whose image you bear, folks. What do you suppose God does in response?


Let’s bring this closer to home (since we’ve been talking more in theological abstracts). Here’s a more tangible illustration for you.


Say a man has a pristine reputation in a community. He’s done amazing things to help people out of their distress. In his town, his last name has become synonymous with “love” and “generosity”. If his last name was Peterson—people in his town might say “that’s very Peterson of you” when you help your neighbor. Then, this Mr. Peterson gets married to a beautiful, talented, Peterson-like woman. She bears the last name that she took well for several years—and, they’re happily married. Then suddenly, she becomes a dripping faucet of whining, fussing, complaining. She takes her fussing out of the home and into the community, and she starts slandering her husband and other people in town. Then—just to take this a step further, she starts playing the town harlot and she gets caught in a shop lifting scandal.


She’s not very lovable then, is she? She’s destroyed the Peterson name, the man’s life, the man’s reputation. Any normal person, at that point, would naturally despise that woman who bears his name.


You bear god’s image—his name, folks. And, every time you sin, you defame and mock the glory of that image. You profane his reputation and his image. What’s God to do in response? What would anyone do? What does John 3:16 tell you?


“For God so loved the world”—get this—“that he gave his only son”. That’s amazing! It’s unthinkable, folks! You who believe in Jesus—do you tell yourself this often? “God loves me”—and, it has nothing to do with me! It can’t! I’ve done nothing but mar his image and invoke his wrath upon me, that I might deserve to perish and be destroyed so that God’s image and glory might be preserved. Yet, this verse tells me that God loves me! It’s not an arrogant or presumptuous thing to say. It’s what John 3:16 says (so long as I receive him by faith)!


I can’t make heads or tails of this when I really think about it, folks. All I can do is receive it by faith, and marvel. My good, seminary trained mind wants to flip John 3:16 to say this: “God so loves the son so much that he gave the world and all its kingdoms to the Son”. That makes sense, doesn’t it? God in Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is love. Everything that God does is with reference to God and God’s love for God. That’s how the John talks a little later—literally, in John 3:35: “the Father loves the son and has given all things into his hand”. So, we might think that John 3:16 really means “God so loved the Son that he gave the world to him”. That’s true, but it’s not John 3:16. John 3:16 is very simple, clear, and to the point—God loved the world that he gave his son. We’re talking about his only son—it’s a precious sacrifice, right there. That’s the point John is making—“the world meant this much to God—enough to give his only son”. You don’t give precious things like your only son to your enemies who have despised and defamed your image. You just don’t do that. There’s a proverb about this—“don’t throw your pearls before the swine”.


In fact, you don’t give your son to anyone for anything. I can’t imagine ever giving up my sons for anything—I don’t have a greater love in my heart for anything beyond my wife and children. Yet, John 3:16 makes me marvel. God loves me, his enemy who has sinned against him and profaned the image he gave me. He loves me that much, and in that way, to resign his son to his infinite wrath and judgment that I deserved, so that I might be forgiven and restored to him.


Why would God do that? Because he loves me, because he loves you. Why does he love you? Because he loves you—that’s all I can say about that. We could get into all sorts of theological nuances over this—but it will always come back to that imponderable thought. He loves you and me so much that he would send his son in the flesh, and sacrifice him on a cross, to get us back to himself for eternal life. His love and commitment ought to be a shocking sense of assurance, security, and comfort to you who believe. As Paul says in Romans 8:38—


38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


John 3:16 Summarized: It’s Simplicity, Particularity, and Marvel

That’s John 3:16. Don’t overlook the simplicity of it—it says what it means. Don’t overlook the particularity of it—it really does mean that belief in Jesus, the only son of God, is the only way to escape perishing under God’s wrath. Yet even more than this—don’t overlook the marvel it. God loves you and me that much, and he won’t let anything stand in the way of him saving you.


Now, that’s what we see when we simply look directly at John 3:16. Let me just make this really clear—it’s awesome that this is plastered all over our culture and sports, folks. It’s awesome that this is so often the one verse a person has memorized. Yes, it may be misused—God’s word is always going to be misused. Yet, our hope is in the power of the Spirit to use John 3:16 where ever it is read. The way I see it—the more we have the Bible in our culture, the better. May God be pleased to use it for his glory and salvation.


Now, I did say there are two reasons why we need John 3:16. You’re probably thinking, “sounds like we already heard a number of reasons, Peder”. We need to know that belief in Jesus, whom God has given, is the only way to salvation. We need to understand the severity of God’s wrath—that we’ll perish if we don’t believe. We need to at least see the imponderable love of God that John 3:16 expresses. All those are great for striking the fear of God, faith, and assurance of God’s love in our hearts.


What other reasons do we need John 3:16? Let’s call these appendages to what I’ve already said. Both of these two reasons deal with the surrounding context in John 3:16.


Why We Need John 3:16 (Reason #1): We’re all Snake-Bitten

First, I want us to see the relationship between John 3:14 and 15, to John 3:16. So, look at the two verses before John 3:16, and hopefully you’ll hear it.


As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.


John 3:16   “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.


Do you hear it? We literally have a restatement in these verses—“that whoever believes in him… may have eternal life”. John 3:16 adds “should not perish” in order to be clearer. So, in other words, John 3:16 is a restatement of what Jesus says in verses 14 and 15. John 3:16 is explaining verses 14 and 15. They’re saying the same thing, only in two different ways. They build off one another, and complement one another, to help us really see what Jesus is saying.


We already looked at verse 16—so, lets look at how verses 14 and 15 get to the same idea. There, Jesus is reminding Nicodemus of that brief episode in Numbers when the people of Israel complained against God. So, God sent them snakes as a show of his judgment upon their ungrateful, fussy hearts.


What happened next? We read the story, didn’t we? The obvious happened! People got bit and died! They perished! This is a very vivid picture of perishing under God’s judgment—and, dare I say, it’s incredibly convicting. How many of you complain against God? How many of you struggle to be thankful, at times, for the daily food or the daily jobs he gives you? Ingratitude is a serious sin, and God ensures that the ungrateful who would grumble against his name and provisions will perish. Here, it’s like an Indiana Jones movie—snakes are crawling all over the ground, biting people so they’d perish.[2] That’s what God thinks of complaining and grumbling.


Now, if you saw all the snakes—if you truly felt the immanent threat of God’s judgment—what would you do? Let me just read the rest of the story, since it’s so brief. Starting in Numbers 21:7,


And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.


That’s a really vivid story, there. There’s no question—the people had sinned and the snake bites made it undeniably clear that they were perishing under God’s judgment. So, they cried out in with faith and repentance to God, that they might not perish any longer. The answer? God raised up a snake on a pole for them to look at, and be healed.


Yes, the bronze serpent is a strange image to look upon for salvation. Yet, so is Jesus, raised up and hanging on the cross. In both situations, we are called to look upon the image of God’s wrath and judgment in order to be saved. “Look at this serpent—the means god used to judge you. Look at it, know that such is what you deserve. Be humbled, appalled by your sin, and so be saved.” Is that now Jesus on the cross? “Look at God’s only son dying on the cross—death, the means God uses to judge you. Look at him, forsaken by God, perishing, and know that such is what you deserve”. As the serpent was raised up, so the son of man must be raised up. This, of course, is nothing less than what John 3:16 says in the next verse. God gave his only son—he raised him up on the cross—that whoever looks upon him shall not perish, but have eternal life.


Why do we need John 3:16? Quite simply, because we’re all snake-bitten. The added imagery from this episode is compelling, and terrifying, folks. Who here is terrified of snakes? I don’t care who you are—there’s no reason to mess around with poisonous snakes. When I worked in Kentucky for a summer, there was a snake hatching in the camp we were staying in, and copperheads were everywhere. I slept in a hammock, and I’ll never forget my trip partner waking me up and informing me that a snake was warming itself directly underneath me, inches from my body. It was not a good feeling—and, John 3:16 is telling us that we aren’t just in danger of being bitten. We are bitten. As John 3:16, 17, and 18 unpack this for us, it goes so far to say that “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” He’s already bitten, already perishing, because he has not yet looked upon Jesus for salvation.


We need John 3:16 to remind us that we are a snake-bitten, perishing people, until we have looked to Jesus whom God raised up on our behalf.


What’s the other reason we need John 3:16? The simple answer, folks, is gratitude and thanksgiving.


Why We Need John 3:16 (Reason #2): Gratitude

If you look at the rest of our passage, starting in verse 19, you’ll see John change metaphors. He’s still talking about judgment—but instead of speaking about perishing and snake bites, he starts talking about light and darkness. Judgment isn’t just being snake-bit, it’s remaining in darkness rather than the light. Verse 19—


19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.


So, this is answering the question, “why would a perishing, snake-bitten person not look to Jesus for healing?”. The answer is because some snake-bitten people love their misery. They love their wickedness, their darkness. Verse 20, there, even says “everyone who does wicked things hates the light”. They don’t want their misery and sin and wickedness exposed. They’d rather die than come to the light.


Folks, this is where the rubber hits the road. We aren’t talking about snake bites anymore. Yes, that was a real event that really happened—and yes, it’s an event that Jesus used to illustrate our situation. But what is our situation? We’re not bitten by snakes. That’s not our judgment. Our judgment is that light—Jesus—has come into the world to expose our misery, and we say “no! I don’t want it! Don’t expose me!”, and we run further into our darkness. That’s a worse situation than the snake-bitten Israelites—and, it’s getting to the heart of reality for us.


Think about it—in the Israelite’s situation, who in their right mind wouldn’t look at a bronze, healing serpent? That’s easy—you say “I’m bit! I’m going to the magic serpent!”. Yet, what if it’s raw sin that you have to acknowledge? “I’m prideful. I’m not loving my spouse as I should. I’m being impatient and harsh with my children. I’m angry with God and running from him. I’m living my life the way I want to”. What if that’s the snake bite you have to acknowledge, and that’s the misery your giving up? It’s a bit harder to acknowledge that, and give it up, isn’t it? That’s judgment to resist such a repentance and faith.


Yet, what’s the gospel? Verse 21 tells us. “21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” Do you hear that? There is a situation—a hope—wherein we can expose our sin and our misery, enter the light, walk in the light, and show that our works have been carried out in God. He accepts your work, he delights in your work, he assists you and gives you strength and joy in your work—your work is done before him and in him, as he’s freely forgiven you through faith in his only Son. That’s the eternal life he offers in John 3:16. It’s a life of exposing sin, and working unto God with thanksgiving and praise to him for all eternity, because he loves you and accepts you in Jesus.


We need John 3:16 because it reminds us we’re snake-bitten, and because it reminds us that God offers eternal life so that we might expose our sin, and walk in his light with utmost joy and thanksgiving, because he loves us.


“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life”. Let’s pray.


[1] Sproul, R.C.. John: An Expositional Commentary (p. 42). Ligonier Ministries. Kindle Edition.

[2] A note for further study. When Paul refers to this incident in 1 Corinthians 10:9, (1) he uses the word John uses in John 3:16—the people bitten by snakes apollumi—“perished”. Then also, (2) Paul connects the serpents to “the destroyer”—maybe the death angel who executed God’s judgment at the Exodus?

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